Science Spoken Here? What we don't know about the language of science hurts us, and scientists

It was the year 2011 AD and science had finally discovered time travel. Or so it seemed. In September 2011, a joint team of physicists at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, and the OPERA neutrino detector in San Grasso, Italy, announced they had observed superluminal neutrinos, or more simply that subatomic particles were detected having traveled faster than the speed of light along their 730 kilometer one-way trip. Einstein had implicated in his theory of special relativity that the speed of light was the universal speed limit that all matter obeyed—to travel faster would be what is colloquially understood as time travel, violating causality.

The press was excited to announce the findings. The New York Times subtitled their coverage of the announcement with “Roll over, Einstein?” NBC news announced affirmatively “Neutrinos clocked moving faster-than-light speed.” Even the journal Nature issued the news with an article entitled “Particles break light-speed limit.” To get indications of the genuine scientific doubt underlying the announcement, a dedicated reader would have to make it well past the titles and bylines. Even then, the actual scientific context of the discovery is difficult to parse—it’s hard to give a meaningful primer of special relativity in fewer than 500 words. As a scientist, I imagine that the genuine scientific skepticism expressed by the issuing scientists was not, at the time, taken seriously. For non-scientists, the general public, or what I call the “lay,” discussing  the latest news at the water cooler there’s little reason or incentive to work out why the findings may be flawed and what its implications are.

Worse yet, there was value placed on the results being correct. There is some consensus taken from Internet comments and even articles that such a finding would be good. To quote Jennifer Ouellette, wife of Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, writing for Discover News upon the announcement: “I’m sorry to report that, for all the hoopla, the general consensus that has emerged over the last couple of days is that … it probably won’t hold up over time.”

Now why would a journalist apologize for reporting the news? Why should science journalists and spectators have such emotional investment in whether the laws of physics as we know them are wrong?  Of course everyone cares. There is something immutable about human nature that aspires toward understanding and truth. People want to know why the universe exists, why mankind is the way it is, and the answers to a multitude of similar existential questions. For many scientists, including myself, it is precisely these questions that motivate us to dredge through years of schooling and inevitable failure. But in our work, do we actually get any closer to the answer of these questions?  It is hard to imagine how solving major current problems in science, such as identifying dark matter or even understanding how the brain works, will lead to answers of “Why are we here?” In some small part each scientific advance does answer “How are we here?” By a clever change of tense, an introspective question pondering the meaning of life turns to a more sociologically driven and foreboding question: “How will we be here?” If science gives us the perspective of how we have come exist perhaps it may have wisdom on how mankind may survive the future. Whatever wisdom it does have must be mediated by society. This beckons the question: Is science successfully communicating to society what science is and what it does?

It is naïve to conflate contemporary popularity of science and its cultural impact with understanding of science or even the scientific process.

Unfortunately and quite paradoxically, it is a bleak time for science here in America. There would seem to be some good signs for science acceptance. In a 2009 Pew Research poll, 76 percent of polled scientists believe that these are “good times.” In the same 2009 poll, 70 percent of the polled public has “high regard” for scientists. Economic motivators that fund the development and distribution of technology have placed products of science fiction, cell phones and the Internet, in the hands of almost every American. Ever-present media coverage publicizes otherwise esoteric research while sites like Arxiv.org, an online database of pre-published scientific journal articles, grants free access to the findings. Culturally, there has been resurgence in the acceptance of science as cool. The television show Big Bang Theory that chronicles the trials and tribulations of love, life, and research at Caltech has been one of the network’s highest-rated evening sitcoms. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos may have achieved new audiences through its producer, Seth McFarlane of Family Guy, and an introduction by President Obama. For those on Facebook, shared posts of the group “I F—king Love Science!” are unavoidable with its following of over 17 million users.

And yet, what is there to show for all this popularity and access to science? It is naïve to conflate contemporary popularity of science and its cultural impact with understanding of science or even the scientific process. It is not hard to make the case that Americans are woefully undereducated about science knowledge. About one in four Americans believes the sun revolves around the Earth and don’t know that the atmosphere is composed predominately of nitrogen, according to a 2014 NSF science literacy survey and 2013 Pew poll, respectively.

But arguably basic science knowledge literacy is innocuous. Even as I assist in teaching astronomy for non-science majors, I stress that remembering how massive the sun is or types of planets is not important. Rather, the point of a liberal education in the sciences is to appreciate the power of systematic, objective inquiry. Symbolically, even as Galileo was tried at the Inquisition for positing the heliocentric model, the earth kept turning—as it orbited the sun. Rather, it is this appreciation of empiricism that is so important in understanding what science is and how the very same logic can be applied across disciplines and careers. It is this sort of empiricism that informs citizens as to what social and economic policies may be advantageous to vote for and support. It is that appreciation for science that would have spared Galileo. And yet a 1997 paper by Miller, Pardo, and Niwa noted that only one in five Americans a “minimal standard of civic scientific literacy.”

We can consider the two leviathans of the Great American Science Debate: global warming and the theory of evolution. According to Gallup polls from 2001-2014 and analysis by McCright and Dunlap in The Sociological Quarterly, not only has there been significant polarization of belief in global warming—but more people have become strong skeptics over the past decade. Similarly, Gallup polling from 1982-2014 has a significant plurality of Americans strictly denying evolution, believing  “God created humans in their present form.” In 1982, it was 44 percent of respondents—in 2014 it was 42 percent. One must imagine some of this 42 percent make up some of  the 70 percent that also hold scientists in “high regard” and yet there’s disbelief in one of the most central theories of biology.

Indeed, there is much scientific debate to be had measuring how much of global warming is caused by civilization or on specific models of evolution. Within the scientific community, these disagreements can be political as so much funding depends on supporting assumptions. That there is little if any public debate regarding these topics that focuses on the scientific merit and assumptions behind research reinforces the fact that not only is the American public dangerously misinformed about basic science knowledge but also about what science actually is.

The cause for this is twofold: psychology and communication. A notable experiment that analyzed the first cause, psychology, was carried out by Kahan, et al. in 2013 entitled “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government.” In short, the study asked subjects to interpret statistics for the effectiveness of an anti-rash cream and conceal-carry laws, both with spurious data. A subject’s response was measured in conjunction with her or his existing political beliefs. The results were stark: people molded information to conform to their existing beliefs. The authors concluded in their article: “Just as individual well-being depends on the quality of the natural environment, so the collective welfare of democracy depends on the quality of a science communication environment hospitable to the exercise of the ordinarily reliable reasoning faculties that ordinary citizens use to discern what is collectively known. Identifying strategies for protecting the science communication environment from antagonistic cultural meanings—and for decontaminating it when such protective measures fail—is the most critical contribution that decision science can make to the practice of democratic government.”

The solution to the psychological problem of human bias and contradiction must be solved with improved communication. The status quo is untenable. We cannot sustain a healthy democracy if we, scientists and the lay, continue our failed conversation about objective, scientific inquiry and its implications beyond the physical and natural world. There are several ways to assess and address this problem. Rather than a theoretical exposition of semiotics, I offer a few qualitative, cursory suggestions for scientists to mend conflicted views regarding science.

Much as priests, saints, and other holy figures have generally been the intercessors between the lay and the supernatural world, scientists are the fount from which knowledge of the physical, natural world springs forth to its general public. Similarly, just as religious ideals can be construed and twisted for personal and political advantage of religious leaders, the results of science research and the very concepts of empiricism and the scientific process can be twisted as well.

Some readers, particularly scientists, might recoil at those words. Please, be honest with yourselves! Let us consider the most innocuous forms of manipulation: press releases of research findings and proposal language—which are not scientific communication. They are public announcements and sales pitches that are crafted to engender further support from the public and funding agencies. I reflect on statements like that of the Principle Investigator of the AMS 2 experiments upon confirming the positron excess detected by the Pamela which may provide some information on constraining the identity of dark matter: “These data show the existence of a new physical phenomenon … It could be a sign of dark matter.” Here the excess may not be anything new, rather issues in existing unsettled theory of intergalactic particle transport. To someone familiar with the history of dark matter or the underlying physics the quote exaggerates to at least a mild degree. Even years later, further analysis and new data have yet to verify the AMS 2 assertion. While this is a singular example, scientist readers should be all too familiar with this phenomenon. A single act may in and of itself be a misdemeanor, but the constant sensationalization by scientists is further compounded by news media, which I will address momentarily.

Among the lesser degree felonies are the endemic, petty squabbles of which all academics are guilty. A remarkable case study is a 2007 paper by Rosi-Marshall and Tank that indicated genetically modified crops led to a weaker population of the caddis fly. Poor wording and contradicting preliminary results presented in conference immediately heralded insults like “bad science” or “the work is so bad that an undergrad would have done a better job. I’m convinced the authors knew it had flaws,” according to “Battlefield” published in Nature. While this is an extreme example, similar sentiment is not uncommon in review as anonymity and professional insecurity occasionally inspires genuinely juvenile behavior. To what end? As we all compete for funding and belittle the work of others, we project a veneer of arrogance that does so much to make scientists seem impersonal and imperial to the lay public. We should be less busy in trying not to be incorrect and more busy being honest about the deficiencies in our assumptions and work, otherwise there is rather little for society to empathize with and learn from.

What are the high crimes? With little hesitation, I point toward “scientism,” the belief that the scientific method will provide a solution to philosophical problems such as morality and metaphysics. In brief, we can consider comments from Neil DeGrasse Tyson that have derided philosophy in a Nerdist podcast dated March 7, 2014, or the work of Sam Harris who attempts to construct a system of morality solely based on science. Perhaps the most visible example is the evolution debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. A comprehensive review  “The Folly of Scientism” was written by Austin Hughes in The New Atlantis detailing the shallowness of this burgeoning philosophy. Whether mesmerized by the limelight after emerging from dark, sterile laboratories or misguided believers of empiricism with the purest intentions, these high priests of scientism fail in their obligations to their faith and in meeting their own objectives.

For the sake of brevity, I side-step a meaningful debate to be had on the value of empiricism and skepticism in confronting illogical beliefs. If the objectives of these high priests are to educate the masses on the power of scientific inquiry, how can it possibly succeed when they antagonize the deeply held beliefs of many? Basic psychology, let alone the work of Kahan, et al. has established that people behave reflexively and not logically when confronted with evidence. By foisting science as a force operating against the very political and religious beliefs of many, these priests are further polarizing not just the political environment but how the concept of science is publicly perceived. Even amongst academics, these high priests emphasize their infallibility. With Sam Harris and Neil DeGrasse Tyson we see a detrimental, imperial attitude. These men have little pronounced background beyond their fields and yet show no humility in the face of centuries of considerable work that has gone into philosophy. As a scientist, I am deeply embarrassed.

We should be less busy in trying not to be incorrect and more busy  being honest with the deficiencies in our assumptions and work, otherwise there  is rather little for society to empathize with and learn from.

Belief in scientism notwithstanding, the goals of scientists in our dialogue with the public are to earn trust as stewards and to educate—not to berate. First, we consider the direct challenge in America: religion. With attacks like that of Dawkins and the debate of Nye and Ham, science may appear to some as the negation of religion, something that is ineradicable in the hearts and minds of believers. You can no more eradicate a belief with tanks or guns than you can with stern rhetoric. Beyond eschewing debates on philosophy or religious faith with those who clearly seek to antagonize, we need to deconstruct the perception of the science/religion dichotomy. Scientists need a sense of humility and honesty in discussions with the public. We don’t have any metaphysical answers. We seek them as much as the lay—we may be working toward them in our lives but the scientific method of deduction offers only suggestions, not answers. The results of scientific work should not be viewed as negations of specific interpretations of the physical and natural world. In communication, whether among friends, family, or press—be honest about the role of science. We may find beauty and aesthetic value in our work, but as skeptics it is a fallacy to ascribe metaphysical value to it.

Direct confrontation with belief in an omnipotent god is unnecessary. It is worth knowing that the tainted history between knowledge and divinity existed in Western civilization beyond the story Genesis. Consider the punishment of Prometheus and myth of Pandora. Consider that civilizations have and continue to maintain belief in supernatural metaphysics while accepting physics. Even the repressive Wahabi regime of Saudi Arabia respects the role of science, financing the recent magnate King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, head-hunting Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau to be KAUST’s own president. Scientists can and should use the narrative of religion to win the hearts of the religious on their own terms. Scientists must remember that imposing strict limitations on an omnipotent god with human interpretation of holy books is arrogance of the highest order, this being a common fallacy among the religious who seek to discredit scientific theories. There does exist religious science to provide for the consistent interpretation of holy texts and knowledge, much of which shows a tremendous diversity of belief even amongst those who claim the same creeds and beliefs. If the stubborn religious exist in denial of science, they also exist in denial of much of their own beliefs.

Of course the problems in science communication does not lie with scientists alone. I can point the finger at science journalism, the mediator of our work to the lay: the oversensationization, editorialization, misleading headlines and bylines, and so on. I can blame poor science education policy that instructs students according to the dictates of a test rather than inspires curiosity about the natural world—the very reason science exists. Even worse, we have science education that grades students and punishes failure rather than creating opportunities for the failures that are so much a part of science praxis. There is much to take issue with concerning science education at colleges and universities, where people are taught to be researchers without knowing the philosophy behind their research. Can people meaningfully become scientists when centuries of debate on the extent of scientific knowledge is never taught or discussed? But I address the scientists here. Every change needs a vanguard. If we are the source, the “signal” of science knowledge, then every other participant in the conversation, journalists and the lay, only add noise. We need to minimize the noise at its source, amongst scientists. If we can reform the way we run our own community and work, it is to be hoped that we can slowly extend it beyond.

So let us return to the year time travel was discovered, 2011 AD. What actually happened that led to the measurement of superluminal neutrinos? What was the cause of so much punctuated hysteria? A loose cable. Faulty communication was the reason the initial measurement was incorrect. Let’s not repeat this mistake.

 

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